Is It Finally Time for Pharma to Change the Way It Uses Facebook?

Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal at Hale Advisors.
Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal at Hale Advisors.

How many times have you heard the phrase “Don't trust everything you read online?” Well, I'm here to tell you from recent personal experience, you shouldn't.

An executive at a major digital agency recently published a blog post breaking the news that Facebook was no longer going to allow pharmaceutical companies to turn off commenting on both unbranded and branded pages. And was I ever excited to see that news!

But, not so fast, the aforementioned SVP was wrong: He had received incorrect information from his Facebook rep. Mistakes do happen, after all.

So, why is this a big deal? Because in August 2011 Facebook announced that it would no longer allow commercial pages to turn commenting off but said it would work with the pharmaceutical industry to whitelist branded pages, which includes disabling the comment functionality. Facebook granted an exception to pharmaceutical companies' branded pages so they could avoid exposure to liability with off-label or adverse-event commenting, as well as a host of other challenges in maintaining a branded page that satisfies promotional marketing requirements from the FDA.

Let's step back: Why did Facebook remove this functionality to begin with? Facebook realized that it was losing ad revenue on the pages with no comments since its ad-serving algorithm works off consumer-generated content. If they can't scan your comments for keywords and concepts, they can't serve ads.

Now, let's go back to the mistaken breaking news. I'm guessing quite a few people in the industry freaked out when they read the news, much as they did years ago when the whitelist announcement happened. I, on the other hand, was very disappointed that this announcement was inaccurate because I saw this as a huge opportunity for the industry to finally figure out the value of Facebook, not to mention how companies could dedicate the appropriate resources to managing  their presence on Facebook. I was excited that Facebook was finally going to hold the pharmaceutical industry to the same standards as every other commercial entity.

Trust me, I have always had a love—hate relationship with Facebook. On the plus side, what a great place to vent, share, curate, inform and look at adorable baby pictures from all my friends with whom I never actually speak. On the other side, it's a big time-suck and distraction, pulling me from things I ought to be doing, which is spending quality time with my kids and brain time at work or filling time I should be using for quiet contemplation. But no matter how you feel about Facebook, you must admit that it drives connection and engagement with people, events and places you love.

The key word is “engagement.” For many years now, pharma has hidden behind the ability to turn commenting off on Facebook pages, allowing marketers to use the channel much as they would a typical web page. They have pushed content about disease-state education, news and mainly non-branded promotional events and promoted contests or other information with the purpose of taking you from Facebook to their own content.

Let's pretend for a second the “breaking news” was true. What would this mean?

Marketers would finally be forced to stay true to the purpose behind Facebook as a channel, which is to help “your business build lasting relationships with people and find new customers.” Marketers would also have to really understand and justify Facebook as a channel for their brand objectives.

I have heard too many pharma marketers tell me that they are putting up a Facebook page because it's where their audience is—this is true—but then they allow the challenge of working with their agencies, promotional review teams and communications teams, who are the internal group most skilled in leading two-way dialogue based on their media communications, to get in their way. It's hard to talk with consumers—there is a ton of vulnerability and liability tied up in our responsibility to communicate within FDA guidelines. But it is by no means impossible.

Look at what the team behind acid-reflux medication Nexium has done, for example. The brand has had an “open” branded Facebook page from the very moment the page launched late last year. There is some similarity in the responses, leading an observer to believe that it has approved responses to categorized consumer posts, but that makes it even more powerful. Nexium is literally using it as a kind of customer service platform, which is a terrific use of commercial social media. Or look at the Facebook page for Medtronic Diabetes, which is also looking to use the channel to help answer its patients' questions. Helping patients use your product will lead to greater compliance and adherence, which leads to better outcomes. And so on and so on …

Pharma, let's use this to our advantage. I encourage you to think about what service you could provide to better support your product in the marketplace. Then put yourself in your patients' shoes and understand how they could use this service to get the help they need. Then invest the time, budget and resources to partner with your internal and external folks to support this and other social-media channels as engagement platforms, not just another website. You've already spent plenty of money on those and you're probably not even sure if they are making a difference in your marketing efforts.

Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal at Hale Advisors.